The amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge conducting operations in the 5th fleet AOR

The amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge conducting operations in the 5th fleet AOR Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Corbin J. Shea/U.S. Navy

'Mass Chaos': Diplomats Warned Obama Syria Was Inevitable

For months, diplomats told the White House to get involved in Syria, or pay a greater price down the road. Well, here we are. By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Don’t say they didn’t warn us.

“At the end of the day we are going to be pulled into this one way or two another,” a State Department official told me in April. “The only thing is we are going to be pulled into it kicking and screaming and not on our own terms.”

Call it the great Syria policy swerve. In less than 14 days the United States has gone from a policy of doing just enough to a policy of “enough is enough.” America has shifted suddenly and with great public drama from a policy of containment -- keeping the U.S. military outside of Syria while allowing extremist rebels and Hezbollah fighters to bleed one another out -- to pursuing permission from Capitol Hill to strike limited targets directly inside of Syrian borders.

And for months officials who favored a more energetic policy approach on Syria -- diplomatic and military -- have said we would land exactly where we are. The cost of inaction, they said, eventually would outweigh the cost of getting involved.

“The issue of chemical weapons is extremely problematic for the strategy of containment because it is not even about weapons falling into wrong hands; it is the precedent this is setting,” said the official five months ago. “If we are going to demonstrate an inability to respond we could be creating a really big problem for ourselves and our allies in the region down the line.”

For current and former diplomats, the issue has long been framed in terms of foreign powers and foreign fighters. Having established a “red line”, America could not take it back or make it pink. Regional powers would be watching closely to see whether America was serious about following through with its actions once it had charted a policy course with its words.

Or, as former Amb. Dennis Ross put it in an interview earlier this month, “I have never doubted that the president means what he says. My only concern is that the Iranians don’t seem to believe that. The worst of all worlds is when you have a president who will act on what he says and have the other side not believing that, because then you make the use of force more likely rather than less likely.”

In May another ambassador, Tom Pickering, outlined his own plan for a forceful diplomatic surge that included a humanitarian ceasefire.     

“Letting things continue to go on the way they are doesn’t seem to me to do anything more than prolong the agony on a slow roll,” Pickering said four months ago.  “We need to move this fairly soon or we are going to lose the opposition; certainly the al-Qaedization of the opposition has been fairly serious and the fracturing of the opposition is very large.”

This is precisely the argument many in Foggy Bottom had made for months.

The president has received briefings on his range of diplomatic and military options in the two and a half year old civil war, from advisors inside and outside of the administration who favored greater involvement, arguing that the cost of inaction would eventually overwhelm the cost of intervening. The Obama administration instead has pursued a purposefully minimalist approach as America the Weary opted out of a savage conflict in the Middle East that has claimed at least 100,000 lives and created more than two million refugees, half of them under the age of 18. After a decade of war, nearly 7,000 fighting men and women dead and billions of dollars flying out the door each month to Afghanistan and Iraq, the time had arrived for America to pursue a policy of staying home. Those who had pushed for a diplomatic surge hoping to force all sides to the table, and for greater U.S. support to the moderates within the Syrian opposition, saw themselves embracing what they viewed as the least-bad option, to no avail.

In June, after reports surfaced of a chemical weapons attack by the government against the opposition, the White House decided to ship small arms to moderates within the rebel forces. But even that move was viewed as a clumsily unveiled show of limited support as compared to a regime fighting for its existence with help from its all-in Iranian backers. After months of beating back challenges by the Hill to get more involved in Syria, the administration suddenly found itself giving briefings to decidedly skeptical audiences of lawmakers unsure that they wanted to spend dollars arming fractured rebel fighters, given sequestration’s squeeze, the military’s exhaustion and the risk that weapons would land in the hands of extremists descending on Syria.

Critics from within the administration say that even from the inside it has been a jarring set of months. They acknowledge there are no good options in Syria, but describe the administration’s Syria policy as a constellation of tactics in search of a strategy with no overarching vision to set the course.

“It is incoherent and it is inconsistent; it is all over the place,” said one administration official of the administration’s Syria approach. Of the decision to take the use of force resolution to the Hill, this official said, “it is just mass chaos.”

Those close to the campaign to wring a “yes” vote from a reluctant Congress say that much work remains to be done, though they believe they eventually will win over lawmakers to their side. If the vote were taken today, however, they say they would lose.   

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